Out of a 1970s grant to an architect, universal design grew to reject traditional "separate but equal" facilities for people with disabilities
What's Universal About Universal Design?
A common motivator for invention and innovation is immediate physical need. Embedded in human nature is the desire to do a task more easily, more beautifully, faster, or just differently. In the history of disability, the best solutions often have arisen from the creative minds of the people with the most at stake. J. E. Hanger lost a limb in the Civil War and started a prosthesis company. Van Philips was dissatisfied with the artificial feet available to him and designed the Flex-Foot and the "cheetah leg." Marilyn Hamilton wanted to continue to play tennis after a sky-diving accident and the result was the Quickie wheelchair.
Universal design originated in a similar way. In the 1960s, a loose-knit group of activists, designers, architects and educators who shared a common belief in the right of all persons to use public space and participate in civic life, began to find one another and discuss inclusion strategies for people with disabilities. Over the next twenty years, they formulated an approach to product and environmental design that wedded civil rights with bodies that are not typically abled. This hybrid aesthetic -- variously known as universal design, trans-generational design, design for all, and life span design -- is evident in everything from levered door handles, curb cuts, large-button telephones, automatic water fountains and ramps, to the ergonomics of computer keyboards. In this month's Inventive Voices podcast from the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Bess Williamson, a Ph.D. candidate in the history of American civilization, describes the design principles behind the iconic Cuisinart food processor and other kitchen tools, as well as living spaces aimed at "aging in place."